SpaceX’s first upgraded Cargo Dragon 2 spacecraft is safely in orbit after Falcon 9’s 100th successful launch, kicking off the company’s first-ever operation of two Dragons in orbit.
Following on the heels of Crew Dragon’s second astronaut flight and operational launch debut, Crew-1 and Cargo Dragon’s CRS-21 resupply run also represent the quickest back-to-back Dragon launches in SpaceX’s history by several months. According to SpaceX comments and NASA schedules, the company’s 2021 manifest will be at least as packed with Dragon launches as 2020, packing another five (and maybe even six) orbital missions into a single year.
To achieve that ambitious manifest (potentially as many Dragon missions as ULA launches in all of 2020, for example), SpaceX and NASA will have to rely more heavily than ever on reusability. Thankfully, CRS-21 has already expanded the envelope of NASA-approved Falcon 9 booster reuse.
In a slew of firsts for NASA and SpaceX, CRS-21 marked the first time in history a new spacecraft has debuted on a flight-proven rocket, the first time SpaceX has flown an orbital mission for NASA on a twice or thrice-flown Falcon 9 booster, and the first time SpaceX has flown an orbital mission for NASA on a booster with non-NASA flights in its history.
Even further, still, SpaceX managed to turn Falcon 9 booster B1058 around for CRS-21 – satisfying NASA’s strict standards – in just 61 days, making it the third fastest Falcon booster turnaround ever. In other words, SpaceX’s successful CRS-21 launch has simultaneously demonstrated that a booster good enough for Starlink is good enough for NASA and that even rapid Falcon refurbishment is up to NASA’s standards. With an average turnaround of ~60 days, a single Falcon 9 booster could feasibly support five annual Dragon launches.
Meanwhile, each upgraded Cargo Dragon 2 spacecraft has been designed to support at least five orbital missions, while Crew Dragon is already scheduled for its first reuse – carrying astronauts, no less – around four months from now.
The first Cargo Dragon 2 is now en route to the International Space Station (ISS) and is scheduled to autonomously dock – a first for a US cargo spacecraft – around 1:30 pm EST (18:30 UTC) on Monday, December 7th. Stay tuned for updates as two SpaceX Dragons prepare to meet in orbit for the first time ever.